Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Merrell M-Connect Series (or, how we spent the last few months)

Let the epic party begin.
All at once, it seemed, my cancer-beating, hardcore wife and I had a lot of work to do. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of fun, but I have never in my blogging career had such a task ahead of me. Yes, it is a tough job reviewing an entire line of amazing, innovative running shoes from one of our favorite companies, but we persevered.  We ran in sleet, snow rain, heat, night, day, trails, roads, up stairs, down stairs, on treadmills, to work, from zombies, over hills, underpasses, through the woods, to grandmother’s house, and anywhere in between. We came out of it uninjured, and on the upswing in both of our running. is our epic story of real-world-testing the 2013 Merrell M-Connect line...

We begin with the day that the UPS man thought he would hurt his back, but didn’t, because the huge boxes he had saved for last ended up being as light as a chap-stick.  Amazed, he carried both of them in one triumphant, glowing march to my front door.  From there, he tipped his cap, gave a knowing smile, and high-fived us both as we cheered, ecstatic at what we had been delivered.

Feverishly, we tore open the boxes, and inside we found many more boxes.  For her, five pairs of shoes ranging from the slipper-like minimal maestro, the Vapor Glove, through the crossfit-crowd loving Crush Glove, to the new pink Proterra boots she’d wear all winter, and even more shoes in between.  For me, it was the much-improved Bare Access 2 and new MixMaster Move that caught my eye, but the men’s Vapor Glove, Road Glove 2, and Proterra mid were waiting in the wings to rock my running world.

We invited our friends over, broke open the '61 Chateau Palmer Margeux, gave our dog an extra milkbone, fired up the grill, handed out cigars, and let Leo watch as many Disney movies as he wanted. It was shoe party time.

Immediately, I changed into my running clothes, sure to pick my favorite, flattering shirt and shorty shorts, anxious to look awesome and fast and powerful (routine for me, let's be honest). I ran in my new shoes one by one, up and down our street.

In my mind, I knew I looked like a thoughtful, talented, thorough reviewer of technical running footwear. An amazing gazelle, nimbly gliding down 4th Street. To my foolish neighbors, I was told, I looked like a raving lunatic, running up and down the same block periodically with a childish grin on my face.

Moira, to her credit, was more able to keep her cool. She merely grabbed all her new shoes and took them upstairs. That evening, after finishing my running adventure (it was the Mix Master that received the call-up for more miles that evening), I came into our bedroom to find her cuddling a pair of Vapor Gloves in hot pink and black as she soundly slept with sweet dreams of mountain marathon conquests and minimal-hippy-running bliss.

Well, after weeks and weeks of epic running, rotating M-Connect shoes through their paces (Vapor Glove for a weekly strength-building run, Bare Access for long runs, Road Glove 2 for tempo work, and the MixMaster Move handing the light trails nearby), I have my thoughts together on this lineup, as does Moira. If you are still with me, then I guess you’re ready for lets hit it!

He said:

It was the Bare Access 2 that really took my heart in this line. Maybe it is because I do so much of my thinking on my long runs, and these shoes have made my long runs that much better lately. A well-cushioned, zero-drop shoe in the very lightweight spectrum, the Bare Access 2 is a durable, firm, road warrior with ample traction and a soft, breathable upper. Like all Merrell Barefoot-based shoes, the Bare Access 2 has plenty of toebox room and a narrow, snug fit through the midfoot and heel. The cushioning is sufficient to forgive an occasional sloppy heel slap, and the flexibility is such that the ride is fluid. As a very narrow foot, my only fit complaint was a slight bunching of the upper material at the base of the tongue due to the width of the shoe. The upper material is fantastic, with a series of more firm glued overlays to keep the shape in shape. The Bare Access 2 does have the characteristic arch curve.

I admire the Bare Access 2 so much, as a running shoe and as a casual walking shoe, that I have recommended it to a few non-runners. My mom bought a pair at the Wolverine Worldwide Factory Outlet in Rockford, where I, unrestricted, would gladly hand over our life insurance, 401k, and other various investments, to buy clothes and shoes. Luckily, my sensible wife won out and I still have a home and reliable transportation available to me.

The Mix Master Move has been my second favorite out-of-the box shoe in this line. With a 4mm drop and a fit and finish familiar to anyone who has run in the original variations on the MixMaster, you get a good, road-to-trail hybrid shoe that can stand in for a high-miles road trainer for more adapted minimal runner, or as a minimal transition shoe for traditionally shod runner.

 It excels on light trails, but unlike its cousin the original MixMaster, it has no rock plate for truly rigorous and rocky trails. The lugs are forgiving for roads, but just aggressive enough for light trail duty. In all honestly, I believe the MixMaster Move is intended to serve as a road variant of the original in this new line, but I’ll stick to my guns that it is a versatile multi-surface shoe. My deep red pair with silver accents is also the sharpest looking trainers I have for casual wear at the moment.

The Road Glove 2 is a different animal from its predecessor. As a zero-drop, low-cushion, truly road-oriented minimal barefoot-style shoe, the Road Glove 2 is a fantastic option. Soft upper (almost identical to the Bare Access 2), and a firm midsole/outsole combo with a wide, stable footprint, the Road Glove 2 is my go-to for when I want some light road feel, but just enough forgiveness to run hard on my weekly tempo. 

Uber-barefoot running folks may look askance at the Road Glove 2, as it certainly is a bit more shoe than its now-revered daddy, but in it’s own right it is a hell of a shoe, and after all, just under the Road Glove, we now have a new, even more minimal option, the...

Vapor Glove! The Vapor is a novel option. At just a few millimeters thick, it offers almost no protection and no support or cushioning. Without the troublesome and sometimes socially unacceptable toe pockets of the Vibram Five Fingers variants, the Vapor serves as perhaps the best true barefoot-style option on the road today. Crafted by secret master geniuses, the Vapor Glove managed to be reliably smooth for an adapted barefoot runner without altering ground feel to an appreciable degree. They are silk slippers with a purpose.

More minimal than aquasox, and more versatile than Vibram KSOs. You are as close to the ground as you can get in these shoes, and just standing still they sag like a pair of socks. Barely there, but unforgettable. My only complaint is that the Vapor seems to run big, I could easily step down a half or whole size, even though it is an 11 just as all my others have been. That said, I had test samples and they may not line up in reality in this way. Just try before you buy for size.

On the other end of the spectrum is a really novel new option for hikers, the Proterra. Proterra got a little digital ink on this blog already as I briefly compared it to my favorite heavy hiker, the new Saucony Adventerra GTX. The Saucony boot is just that, a big ass (but lightweight!) BOOT. The Merrell Proterra is a lighter, natural-lasted, hiking shoe for the barefoot crowd. Its light, its roomy up front and secure in back, and it looks cool.

As an avid outdoor guy and as a guy who saves animals and birds and the earth by trekking into the wilds regularly, these shoes actually do get a real workout. As an adapted minimal runner, the Proterra is a shoe with some features I have been looking for forever. My Vasque Sundowners are only occasional visitors, the Proterras are my go-to inter and general outdoor footwear no. Only when I really need something gnarly do I reach past the Proterras and gear up in my much more rugged and heavier boots from Saucony. They are both awesome and both serve a purpose. I wouldn’t drive a shovel into hard earth in the Proterras, but the Adventerra handles that kind of work easily. The Proterra is a perfect option for the daily walks, nature hikes, etc. I bet it can handle adventure further afield, and the semi-rigid ankle collar would give someone with a heavy backpack some extra protection, too, so I bet you’ll even see Proterras on the long-distance set this hiking season.

She said:

I've been lucky enough to test out four new Merrell barefoot shoes and one pair of their boots for the last two months and I am really excited to tell you about them. I'm a barefoot believer - I wore my Dash Gloves and Wonder Gloves every day this past spring, summer and fall and my lingering chemo-induced neuropathy is gone. I credit a few things: barefoot shoes and being more active. I'm feeling so good when I run that I'm contemplating running a half trail marathon this summer.

Which brings me to my training - I've been running in the Bare Access Arc 2 and the Mix Master Move Glide. The Bare Access Arc 2 has been my go-to favorite because of its cushioning, the shoe has 8mm of cushion but no heel ramp, it is a true zero-drop shoe. Its light, and the inside finish looks like it'll be great for sockless summer runs. I've been able to go out and run a couple of miles without aches or pains in this shoe right out of the box. I feel like this has the right amount of cushioning.

If you need a little more cushioning, the Mix Master Move Glide is a great option, but it is a different shoe and has a 4mm heel drop. Again - I'll say the same thing for all of these shoes - lightweight, they have a secure upper, and a cushy more traditional tongue. The Move is really more like a “regular” shoe and less like the other shoes in the M-Connect line, which are all based on the barefoot last (shape). I wore them on a cold and slushy road run last Saturday and they were awesome. They've got a knobby sole to keep you from sliding around on the ice or mud.

The Crush Glove is a training shoe and its probably the best looking pair of shoes that I own. I honestly get compliments on them every time I wear them. Just look at that PINK.

I wore them to Zumba class- while I have no rhythm they helped keep my feet tight and secure while I felt pretty insecure about my Zumba skills. The soles are flat and slightly wider than the Bare Access Arc 2 - they are hard and provide a little arch support.

If you need a pair of shoes for the gym this is your shoe. I haven’t spent time running n them, but they are a super cool, durable, stable shoe for exercise and just my general life. There is not a counterpart to these for guys in the M-Connect shoes we received. The girls are lucky.

I've not graduated to running with a truly minimal shoe but I've worn my Vapor Glove quite a bit and they're so comfortable. I was missing my slipper-like casual-wear Wonder Gloves after the weather got too cold to wear them, but these are a great replacement.

As with all of these shoes, they are (SUPER) lightweight (the upper is a single piece of paper-thin fabric) and I've taken to wearing these with jeans. Maybe this summer I'll be strong enough to wear them for a run! They are almost as thin as a quarter underfoot, and can easily be balled up and stuck in a coat pocket. Amazing, but maybe just a hair too little shoe for me yet.

Finally the biggest surprise was to get the Proterra Vim Sport boot. I wear these for almost all of my daily dog walks and I've been so impressed. My beloved North Face boots have a huge heel that bothers my feet after a half hour walk, so I was excited to see that the Proterra Vim Sport has a 4mm drop and a wide toebox like the other Merrells. They are lightweight - I was really surprised by how lightweight given how sturdy they are - and so comfortable. Zak and I went on a long, very cold, hike in Traverse City to go birding in December and they served me well in in the snow. I'm a big fan of these boots.

The End...

Or is it??? I understand Merrell has some new awesomeness in the pipeline. The update to the Merrell Barefoot Shoe that started it all, the Trail Glove, is coming soon. Also the new Ascend Glove will give the trail crowd the comfort of the Bare Access 2, but with some ample lugging and forefoot and heel rock protection. They just keep cranking over there in Rockford, just two years ago Merrell were nowhere to be seen in specialty running. Now, they are leaders in natural running and have a huge role in the shoe story as it evolves.

Merrell M-Connect is available all over the web and at specialty running and outdoor stores nationally. Find Merrell on their facebook page, their website, on pinterest, or on twitter.

Vapor Glove - $80

Barefoot construction
Breathable mesh upper 
External TPU heel sling for contoured suppor
tReflective details for increased visibility in low light
Integrated microfiber footbed treated with Aegis

0mm Drop / 2mm Cush / 5.5mm Stack Height
Vibram Vapor Glove Sole / TC1 Rubber

Road Glove 2 - $100

51% textile upper
Bellows tongue keeps debris out
Lining treated with Aegis
Reflective details for increased visibility in low light

0 mm heel to ball drop keeps you connected to your terrain
4mm compression molded EVA midsole

Merrell Bare Access 2 - $90

51% textile upper
Bellows tongue keeps debris out
Lining treated with Aegis

0 mm heel to ball drop keeps you connected to your terrain
8 mm M Bound allows for cushioned entry into BareForm movement
Lightweight EVA midsole
Merrell Bare Access 2 Sole / Vibram Pods

Mix Master Move Glide - $95

Synthetic and breathable mesh upper
DWR treated upper repels water and resists staining
Bellows tongue keeps debris out

Low profile 4 mm heel to ball drop (9mm heel / 5mm ball)
Merrell Float Midsole is 10% thinner and 25% lighter to provide more feel and ground control
Merrell air cushion in the heel absorbs shockMolded nylon arch shank
EVA removable footbed
Merrell Mix Move Sole / Sticky Rubber

Women’s Crush Glove - $100

Barefoot construction
Synthetic leather and breathable mesh upper
Lining treated with Aegis

0 mm heel to ball drop keeps you connected to your terrain
Compression molded EVA footframe for stability and comfort
Integrated microfiber footbed treated with Aegis
Vibram Chrysalis Glove rubber sole

Proterra (Proterra Vim for women) 
Mid Sport - $120 and Sport - $100

Merrell stratafuse fabric upper
Bellows tongue keeps debris out
Protective TPU rand and toe cap
Breathable mesh upper treated with Aegis
EVA removable footbed treated with Aegis

Low profile midsole (9mm heel / 5 mm ball = 4 mm drop)
Molded TPU arch shank
Minimal design PU midsole increases ground contact and enhances stability
2.5 mm lug depth
Merrell Proterra Vim Sole / sticky rubber